Below are my thoughts and analysis of the Tesla Model S/New York Times fiasco. I published the article on my Blogspot a few days ago and I'd like to share it with you guys.
Almost a month after Mr. John Broder published a heavily scrutinized review of the Tesla Model S on the New York Times, the accusation volleys between Mr. Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors) and Mr. Broder ended with a “truce” between both parties. The Model S, which was once regarded as vaporware by Motor Trend and The Truth About Cars, was abruptly shoved into the media limelight less than a year after its launch in the U.S. While the media frenzy begins to fade, the controversy remains an unsolved mystery: What went wrong? Who was at fault?
|Broder vs. Musk: interesting but inconclusive|
There are two sides to the argument: Mr. Broder who wants to deliver an engaging read to New York Times readers, and Mr. Musk who is a valiant defender of Tesla. I do not think any party is solely responsible for the controversy; instead it was a perfect storm of Mr. Broder’s spotty journalism and Mr. Musk’s impulsive defenses for the Model S.
In Tesla’s Defense
Read the Owner’s Manual
In a New York Times followup investigation by Ms. Margaret Sullivan, one of the newspaper’s public editor, it became apparent that Mr. Broder neglected to read the Model S owner’s manual. Had he read the manual of “30-or-so well-written pages” as New York Times reader Mr. Roger Wilson pointed out, Mr. Broder would have been cognizant of a few precautions regarding the Model S:
1. The ‘Max Range’ setting charges the battery to its full capacity, providing another 20-30 miles of range
2. The ‘Range Mode’ driving mode conserves battery life
3. There is a section titled ‘Driving Tips for Maximum Range’
4. Leaving the Model S plugged in when not in use helps the battery to maintain its charge
While I have not read the owner’s manual of my Nissan Altima, it is a relatively simple vehicle that operates much like any gasoline-powered vehicle. On the other hand, Mr. Broder has the obligation to fully investigate the more complicated Model S as a journalist, which includes reading the owner’s manual.
|Fortunately Mr. Broder wasn't stabbed in the face for not reading the manual (Adapted from http://www.xkcd.com/293)|
Using Common Sense
I believe it is probable that Mr. Broder have experienced battery drain, or the gradual loss of battery charge without usage, with his tools of the trade (smartphone and laptop). He may have also figured out that battery life readouts of electronic devices are merely estimates based on the battery’s remaining voltage and the user’s current activities. In this case, “battery range” on the Model S can fluctuate continuously based on the battery’s state and the vehicle’s operating environments.
It is therefore surprising for Mr. Broder to stop recharging the Model S when the indicated battery range exceeded the distance that he will travel, except for his last recharge at Norwich when he hoped to restore some battery life by “conditioning” the battery. Mr. Broder never asked about battery drain during his overnight stop in Groton, Connecticut, although I find the battery drain from 90 miles to 25 miles to be drastic and unexpected.
What’s even more surprising was Mr. Broder’s confidence in Tesla’s suggestion that “conditioning” the battery will restore lost battery life. The Model S was charged for merely an hour at the Norwich Supercharger, despite the range estimator “never reached the number of miles remaining to Milford”. His decision was especially baffling when the first “conditioning” attempt in Groton failed to restore any battery life.
According to Mr. Broder, his decision against charging the battery to its full capacity was based on two crucial suggestions made by Tesla’s technical support personnel:
At Groton: “...the official I woke up said I needed to “condition” the battery pack to restore the lost energy. That meant sitting in the car for half an hour with the heat on a low setting.”
- This did not restore any battery life, but rather depleted another 6 miles from the estimated range.
At Norwich: “Tesla’s experts said that pumping in a little energy would help restore the power lost overnight as a result of the cold weather, and after an hour they cleared me to resume the trip to Milford”
- This also did not restore any battery life, and eventually left Mr. Broder stranded.
I was initially skeptical of these pivotal suggestions made by unnamed Tesla “official” and “expert”, although these Tesla officials were subsequently reported to be Ms. Christina Ra (Tesla spokeswoman) and Mr. Ted Merendino (Tesla product planner) in Mr. Broder’s defense. What remains unknown is whether Mr. Broder explained to Mr. Musk that his actions were based on the advice given by these Tesla personnels, who were never mentioned in any of Mr. Musk’s rebuttals. It is likely that Mr. Musk would be obligated to address this key issue directly if Ms. Ra and Mr. Merendino were named in the original review. Instead, Mr. Musk directed the blame at Mr. Broder, claiming that he under-charged the Model S at Norwich “expressly against the advice of Tesla personnel “.
|"I understand what you're saying, but you're wrong"|
In Mr. Broder’s Defense
Briefing the Press
Playing the devil’s advocate, Tesla is equally guilty in neglecting to explain a few crucial precautions regarding the Model S’s battery life, nor did Tesla highlight the importance of the owner’s manual. While Mr. Broder cannot rightfully plead ignorance as his defense, his test drive would have been successful had Tesla took a few minutes to point out these basic precautions. Instead, Mr. Broder was left to operate the Model S as a normal gasoline vehicle, even after he made multiple phone calls to Tesla’s technical support to inquire about battery conservation and excessive battery usage.
I also find Mr. Musk’s rebuttals to be hasty and inconclusive. Why didn’t Mr. Musk consult with the New York Times, which is far from a fly-by-night tabloid, before condemning Mr Broder’s review as a “fake”? It was certainly hasty to accuse Mr. Broder of intentionally driving in circles to deplete the battery, when in fact he was searching for the Supercharger outlets at the Milford Supercharger. Why were Ms. Christina Ra and Mr. Ted Merendino, the Tesla technical support personnel whom Mr. Broder consulted with, never mentioned in Mr. Musk’s rebuttals? It was never directly addressed whether Mr. Broder’s decisions were based on the advice given by Ms. Ra or Mr. Merendino.
|Mr. Musk's accusation (bottom) doesn't quite add up to Mr. Broder's remark (top)|
In fact, the New York Times article clearly stated “Mr. Broder and The Times have maintained that the article was done in good faith, and that it is an honest account of what happened”. In fact, the publication remarked that Mr. Musk defended the Model S “in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible”. The controversy was coming to an end, but it was hardly a truce nor a mutual understanding.
While I believe that Mr. Broder’s careless, incomplete review does the Model S a great disservice, I also find Mr. Musk’s rebuttals to be evasive and inconclusive. His accusation that Mr. Broder’s controversial review led to about $100 million in damages was especially unfounded.
Few Margins of Error
Mr. J B Straubel, Tesla’s Chief Technical Officer (erroneously referred as the company’s Chief Technology Officer in Mr. Broder’s original review) acknowledged in the review that the East Coast Superchargers “were at the mileage limit of the Model S’s real-world range”. The seemingly generous 36-mile (or 17.5%) cushion between the car's 242-mile range estimate after Mr. Broder's first recharge and the 206 miles between the Newark and Milford Superchargers completely dissipated in front of Mr. Broder’s eyes. This could be related to Mr. Straubel’s estimate that cold weather “inflicts about a 10 percent range penalty”, which can be further exacerbated by the inevitable use of the car’s heater. While the 85-kWh Model S is officially rated by the EPA with a 265-mile range as achieved by completely charging the battery under "Range Mode", this charging mode purportedly shortens the battery's life over time and Tesla does not recommend using this mode regularly.
Weather, traffic condition, cabin electricity consumption, tire wear, etc. are only some of the numerous factors that can affect a gasoline-powered vehicle’s fuel consumption. Detours, pit stops, visits to friends, and other errands are therefore most likely out of the equation for any Model S owner who plans to make a trip between the two Superchargers. Considering the battery’s sensitivity in cold climates, the fluctuating battery range estimates in electric vehicles, and the consequence of running out of electricity in the middle of a trip, Tesla seems to leave little margins of error for anyone who wishes to complete a single trip between these Superchargers.
|Tesla Model S owner attempting a trip between the Newark and Milford Superchargers in cold weather|
It was an unfortunate turn of events when you consider that the whole controversy could have been avoided had Mr. Broder read the manual and prepared adequately for his review. Meanwhile, the debate could have been less dramatic had Mr. Musk restrained from firing off hasty and callous accusations. In this controversy, nobody wins.